Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eighteenth Century Living: Road Trip!

How far can a horse travel in one day? How about a wagon? How were rivers crossed where there were no bridges, and no fords? What roads existed in the 18th century? Did travelers always stay at inns? What was the difference between an inn, a tavern, and a public house, anyway?

These were some of the questions I had to answer while researching and writing Kindred. My character, Ian Cameron, takes at least three road trips over the course of the story.

 The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road

Prayer concluded, Benjamin Eden produced from a coat pocket a set of bone-handled cutlery, with which he commenced to eat with neat precision, tin plate balanced on his knees. “Thomas tells me thee planned to travel down the coast to Philadelphia and take the wagon road from thence. Though thee hast come the long way around to it, thee are but a half-day’s ride from the road now.” ~Kindred

This road, which stretched from Philadelphia to Georgia, was a major thoroughfare for 18C travelers, particularly settlers headed south into the Carolina backcountry, or across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. This road is traveled by several of my Kindred characters on their way to North Carolina.

Click on the map for a larger view.

Taverns, Inns and Ordinaries

The place buzzed like a hive, true enough, with guests passing through at all hours and a sprinkling of backwoods locals who seemed permanent fixtures in the taproom. ~ Kindred

"The terms used for these public houses varied by region. In New England, tavern was the most popular term. Inn and tavern were used interchangeably in the Middle Atlantic States, and the term ordinary was used in the southern colonies. An ordinary implies that a meal was offered "at a set time and price to the public," while an inn implies overnight stays, and a tavern simply means food and entertainment.

Whether called an inn, tavern, or ordinary, a public house offered food, drink, socialization, and a place to spend the night for road-weary 18th century travelers."

For more on the subject, check out Wayside Inns and Taverns, by Elizabeth Y. Rump.

Rivers To Cross

"They stood near the cross-tied horses, Ian with a hand to the headstall of the nearest. As the current pushed against the craft, the ferryman strode the deck, poling toward the opposite bank." ~ Kindred

Before there were bridges, there were fords, shallow spots in rivers where a rider simply swam his horse across. Sometimes not so simply. If a traveler was fortunate, there would be a ferry to help him cross the river, for a fee. Some early ferries were as basic as two canoes connected by a level surface for the traveler and his horse to occupy, while the ferryman poled him to the opposite shore. Over time this double canoe ferry was replaced by larger, flat-bottomed craft that used a system of pulleys and guide ropes, along with a pole man, to make the slow and tedious crossing.

The map to the right shows the site of the Trading Ford, the old Yadkin River ferry crossing on the Trading Path that ran from Hillsborough, NC, to Salisbury, NC, a Piedmont town that grew at the meeting of the Trading Path and the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. This is the spot my Kindred characters cross on one of their road trips. It must have looked much different in the 18C than when I crossed it in the 21st.

Click on the map for a larger view.

Inns and villages often grew up around a ferry crossing. A great resource for descriptions and illustrations of the evolution of a ferry from its 17th century beginnings to its replacement by a covered bridge in the 19th century, is Edwin Tunis's book The Tavern At The Ferry. Take a look inside using Amazon's Search Inside This Book feature.

So just how far can a horse travel in a day?

That depends on the horse, the rider, the terrain, the weather, and how much the horse is carrying. Though if pressed, and under certain conditions, horses could travel much farther, with proper care (food, water, and rest) a horse in good condition could be expected to travel 20 miles a day over an extended period, which is a good way of describing how long most 18th century road trips lasted.


  1. Lori, this is fabulous information! I learned so much. These are the kinds of things I'm forever trying to figure out. I have a "life line", my step-dad, who has a lot of information that I need on all kinds of topics from "how long did it take a train to travel across the state of NY in 1896?" to "how a muzzleloader works". Fascinating stuff. I'm going to check out that book on taverns. Sounds interesting.

  2. Carla, I'm glad someone else finds them interesting! Your step-dad sounds like a handy soul for a historical writer to have around. :)

    Have you seen any of Tunis's books? You'll be impressed I think. There's several of them on all sorts of historical subjects, and his drawings are wonderful. I have his Colonial Living, Colonial Craftsmen and The Young United States, as well as the Tavern/Ferry book.

  3. Lori, Great post! Your excerpts and pictures just make it delightful:) I don't have this Tunis book so will add it to my list. Like that taverns were called ordinarys in the south. This is the great stuff historicals are made of!

  4. I'll have to check out Tuni's other books. Love that kind of stuff!!

    I was just over at Novel Matters and discovered that you're also are a jotter. Bad habits die hard.

  5. Laura, I need to check into more of his books. I think he has one on Indians.

    Carla, I wish it were a bit more efficient, but so far all these bits of note paper work for me. It seriously messes with my general aversion to clutter, though.

  6. I find myself getting involved in the research. I love it as much as the writing, but sometimes I waste precious writing time by getting sidetracked.

  7. Glynis, a passion for research is essential for writing, especially historical fiction. It IS easy to get lost in it, but you never know... around that next research bend might be lying that perfect nugget of fact or history you couldn't have known to look for. :) Hope your writing is going well. It's good to see you here. Thanks for dropping in to read and comment!

  8. Lori, I have the Tunis book on Indians (sure you're not surprised there) and it's very good. His illustrations are always so right on target and yet charming at the same time. Can't figure out how he does that. And have you noticed he has a wonderful sense of humor? Some of his text makes me laugh out loud:)! Now to order his tavern book... Oh joy!